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The Tragedy of the Commons Problem

Updated: Apr 17

When shared resource use leads to collective loss.

Garrett Hardin popularized the "tragedy of the commons" in his 1968 article of the same name. In it, he explains how individuals acting in their own self-interest can deplete shared resources, leading to overall harm for everyone. He argues that without regulation or limits, common resources like clean air, water, and land can be overused and damaged. Hardin suggests that managing these resources requires collective action and possibly restrictions to ensure they are preserved for future generations.

Hardin wasn't the first to outline the problem. His article builds upon a pamphlet published in 1833 by William Forster Lloyd. Before that, thinkers have pondered the dilemma for millennia. Aristotle wrote, "That which is common to the greatest number gets the least amount of care. Men pay most attention to what is their own: they care less for what is common."

The classic example used to illustrate the tragedy of the commons is a common pasture open to all herdsmen to graze their cattle on. It is in each herdsman's best interest to add more cattle to his herd, since each additional cow adds another animal worth of value to him. The negative impact of his extra cow on the common pasture, in terms of the grass it consumes and the trampling it does, is shared amongst all herdsmen. Thus, the negative impact to the individual of grazing another cow is a small fraction of what he gains. So it makes sense for a rational herdsman to graze as many cattle as possible.

If each herdsman grazes more cattle though, eventually, the number of cattle the pasture can sustain will be exceeded, and the grass will be unable to regrow and support any cattle at all.

Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

It's a bit like the Prisoner's Dilemma, but even thornier. Whoever, out of responsibility to preserve the commons, takes action to exploit it less will inevitably suffer a personal loss.

Whenever it's beneficial for an individual or group to use more of a common resource, and that common resource degrades from increased use, we have a tragedy of the commons.

Commercial fishing companies are incentivized to catch more fish until, eventually, the ocean's fish population is reduced, leading to even fewer fish to catch.

Other examples of the tragedy of the commons include deforestation, air pollution, water pollution, freshwater resource use and aquifer depletion, traffic congestion, plastic pollution, public land overgrazing, antibiotic resistance, space debris, urban sprawl, light pollution, overuse of fertilizer in agriculture, crowding of national parks and tourist sites, crypto-mining, anthropogenic climate change, overuse of shared digital infrastructure, noise pollution, and more.

From these examples, it's evident that the tragedy of the commons is not just about resource use and what's taken out of the commons but also about what's put back into the environment in the form of pollution.

As a civilization, the tragedy of the commons problem is particularly relevant to our use of natural resources. We do not pay nature for the natural resources we take from it, rather we only bear the much smaller cost to extract those resources. On one hand, this difference is what allows prosperity to evolve. On the other, it leads to the rational conclusion that unbounded resource extraction leaves us better off. While it does in the short term, the long-term consequences can be detrimental.

Hardin explores the intricate relationship between individual freedom, temperance (self-restraint), and the necessity of coercion (enforced rules or laws). He argues that absolute freedom in the commons leads to ruin; therefore, temperance alone, relying on individuals' self-restraint, is insufficient to prevent the tragedy. Consequently, he concludes that some form of coercion, "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected," enforced by laws or regulations, is essential to manage the commons sustainably and protect shared resources to ensure the long-term well-being of the community.

To say that we mutually agree to coercion is not to say that we are required to enjoy it, or even to pretend we enjoy it. Who enjoys taxes? We all grumble about them. But we accept compulsory taxes because we recognize that voluntary taxes would favor the conscienceless. We institute and (grumblingly) support taxes and other coercive devices to escape the horror of the commons. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.

Concepts such as private ownership can help prevent certain tragedies of the commons, such as hunting and fishing animals to extinction on public lands. However, air and water, which cannot be easily privatized, require different solutions to avoid pollution. This includes coercive measures such as laws or taxes that make it less costly for polluters to treat their waste than to release it untreated.

The concept of not robbing banks is universally accepted. Total bans on certain actions help to make society better for all – except the bank robbers. Similarly, we use taxes and fines as forms of coercion to regulate behavior, such as managing parking in busy areas by making it more expensive to park for longer periods rather than outright banning long-term parking. This approach provides options that are intentionally skewed to encourage desired behaviors.

In his article, Hardin focuses on the issue of population increase because any commons has a sustainable rate at which resources can be harvested. If more individuals are extracting those resources from the commons or polluting them, a tipping point will be reached where the capacity of the commons to provide those resources or absorb those wastes will be exceeded. At that point, irreparable damage to the commons is done, leaving everyone worse off.

In a finite world with finite resources, maximizing the population necessarily leads to a minimum resource use per person – the minimum to keep a person alive – Hardin points out. This translates into a low quality of life, since all of earth's resources would go towards providing only the basic necessities of survival for such a large population, and none would be available for anything that enriches life such as fancy meals, vacations, art, cars, phones, shoes, bikes, pets, or even exercise. He concludes that the optimum population must be less than the maximum population Earth can support.

Shared resources can only be sustainably managed when the population density is low. As populations have grown, we've had to move away from communal resource management in favor of mutual coercion.

Initially, this shift was seen in food production, with the enclosure of land and limitations on hunting and fishing, though these measures are not universally applied. Later, the need to move away from communal waste disposal became apparent. Gone are the days of dumping human waste out of windows into city streets. In many parts of the Western world, there are now accepted restrictions on how household waste is handled, but challenges remain in fully addressing pollution from cars, factories, and agricultural practices.

And finally, Hardin points out the dichotomy between individual freedom and restrictions for the common good. As he puts it:

Every new enclosure of the commons involves the infringement of somebody's personal liberty. Infringements made in the distant past are accepted because no contemporary complains of a loss. It is the newly proposed infringements that we vigorously oppose; cries of "rights" and "freedom" fill the air. But what does "freedom" mean? When men mutually agreed to pass laws against robbing, mankind became more free, not less so. Individuals locked into the logic of the commons are free only to bring on universal ruin; once they see the necessity of mutual coercion, they become free to pursue other goals. I believe it was Hegel who said, "Freedom is the recognition of necessity."

Freedom is the recognition of necessity.

Questions for you:

  • What is the most important tragedy of the commons issue civilization has yet to solve?

  • What is one of humanity's biggest successes in solving a tragedy of the commons issue?

  • What do you feel is an unalienable human right that should not be infringed upon by mutual coercion?

Please comment and start a conversation.


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